Pitch perception models - a historical review

Alain de Cheveign´e

CNRS - Ircam, Paris, France



This paper analyzes theories and models of pitch from

a historical perspective. Pythagoras is credited with

the first ”psychophysical” model, the monochord, that

he used to formulate a law that links a physical quantity

(ratio of string lengths) to a psychological quantity

(musical interval). The relation between pitch itself

and frequency emerged progressively with Aristoxenos,

Boethius, Mersenne and Galileo. The anatomist Du Verney

first proposed the idea of resonance within the ear,

and of a ”tonotopic” projection from the ear to the brain.

The notion of frequency analysis, formalized mathematically

by Joseph Fourier, was developed by Helmholtz into

a beautiful theory of hearing that bridged mathematics,

physiology and music. Helmholtz unfortunately followed

Ohmin postulating that pitch is determined by one particular

frequency component, the fundamental, thus sparking

a controversy that has drained energy of hearing scientists

for decades, opposing tenants of ”spectral pitch”

to tenants of ”temporal pitch”. Today the terms of the

disagreement have shifted, and the disagreement is now

between models based on ”pattern matching” (originated

by de Boer but already hinted to by Helmholtz) and those

based on ”autocorrelation” (originated by Licklider, but

already implicit in earlier work). Despite the disagreements,

there are deep connections between these various

theories of pitch, and between them and the many methods

that have been proposed for the artificial equivalent

of pitch perception: fundamental frequency estimation.

Using a historical perspective I will try to make apparent

these relations between models and methods. The aim

is to help us go beyond the controversies and develop a

better understanding of how we perceive pitch.

1. Introduction

The history of yesterday’s ideas suggests that today’s

might not last, and that better ones await us in the future.

By looking carefully at theories that did not survive, we

may learn to identify the weak points of our own theories

and fix them. The historical perspective has other virtues.

Among factors that slow down progress in Science, Boring

cites the need to conform to the “Zeitgeist”, the spirit

of the times [1]. Another factor is controversy that may

lock progress into sterile argument. History serves as

an antidote to these factors. Models are often reincarnations

of older ideas, themselves with roots deeper in

time. By digging up the roots we can see the commonalities

and differences between successive or competing

models. Anyone who likes ideas will find many good

ones in the history of science.

Some early theories focused on explaining consonance

and musical scales [2], others on the physiology

of the ear [3], and others again on the physics of sound

[4, 5, 6]. Certain thinkers, such as Helmholtz [7], have

tried to address all these aspects, others were less ambitious.

Music once constituted a major part of Science,

and theories of music were theories of the world. Today,

music and science go each their own way, and the goal

of hearing science is more modestly to explain how we

perceive sound. However, music is still an important part

of our auditory experience, and, historically, theories of

hearing have often been theories of musical pitch.

Today, two competing explanations of pitch prevail:

autocorrelation and pattern-matching, that inherit from

the rival theories of place and time, themselves rooted in

early concepts of resonance and time interval. Autocorrelation

and pattern-matching each have variants. The historical

perspective reveals both their unity and the originalities

of each, and suggests directions in which future

models might evolve. This paper is a short version of an

upcoming chapter on pitch perception models [8].

2. Resonance

2.1. Interval and ratio, pitch and frequency

Pythagoras (6th century BC) is credited for relating musical

intervals to ratios of string length on a monochord

[6]. The monochord consists of a board with two bridges

between which a string is stretched. A third bridge divides

the string in two parts. Intervals of unison, octave,

fifth and fourth arise for length ratios of 1:1, 1:2, 2:3,

3:4, respectively. The monochord can be seen as an early

example of a psychophysical model, in that it relates the

perceptual property of musical interval to a ratio of physical

quantities. The physics of the model were quickly

occluded by the mathematics or mystics of the numbers

involved in the ratios [2]. Ratios of numbers between 1

and 4 were taken to govern both musical consonance and

the relations between heavenly bodies. Aristoxenos (4th

century BC) disagreed with the Pythagoreans that numbers

are relevant to music, and instead argued that musical

scales should be defined based on what one hears [9].

Two millenia later, Descartes made the same objection to

Mersenne [2]). In 1581 the role of number was also challenged,

from a different perspective, by Vincenzo Galilei

(father of Galileo). Using weights to vary the tension of

a string, he found that the abovementioned intervals arise

for ratios of 1:1, 1:4, 4:9, and 9:16 respectively [10, 2].

These ratios are different from those found for length:

they are more complex, and don’t agree with the importance

that the Pythagoreans gave to numbers from 1 to

4. Deciding the respective roles of mathematics, physics,

and perception in the “laws” of music is still a problem


In addition to interval, the Greeks had the concept of

pitch, a quantity by which sounds can be ordered from

grave to acute [9]. They probably associated it with rate,

but semantic overlaps between rate (of vibration), speed

(of propagation) and force (of excitation) makes this unsure.

The relation between ratios of string length and

ratios of vibration frequency was established by Galileo

Galilei [11], whereas Mersenne [12], using strings long

enough to count vibrations, determined the actual frequencies

of each note of the scale. This provided a relation

of pitch with number that was firmly grounded in

the physics of sound.

2.2. Sympathetic resonance in the ear

A string produces musical sounds, but it can also vibrate

in sympathetic resonance as noted by Aristotle [10]. The

perception of like by like was a common notion, and so

the concept of resonance has been used in theories of

hearing from antiquity onwards [1, 3, 6].

In 1683, Du Verney proposed that the bony spiral

lamina within the cochlea serves as a resonator:

. . . being wider at the start of the first turn than the end

of the last . . . the wider parts can be caused to vibrate

while the others do not . . . they are capable of slower vibrations

and consequently respond to deeper tones . . . in

the same way as the wider parts of a steel spring vibrate

slowly and respond to low tones, and the narrower parts

make more frequent and faster vibrations and respond to

sharp tones . . . according to the various motions of the

spiral lamina, the spirits of the nerve which impregnate

its substance [that of the lamina] receive different impressions

that represent within the brain the various aspects

of tones” [13]. This paragraph concentrates several key

concepts of place theory: frequency-selective response,

tonotopy, and tonotopic projection to the brain. Subsequent

progress of the resonance theory is recounted in

[3]. In 1758, Le Cat [14] proposed that the basilar membrane

is constituted of strings like those of a harpsichord,

and Helmholtz later used a similar metaphor.

2.3. Superposition and Ohm’s law

Mersenne reported that he could hear within the sound of

a string, or a voice, up to five pitches corresponding to the

fundamental, the octave, the octave plus fifth, etc. [12].

He knew also that a string can respond sympathetically

to higher harmonics, and yet he found it hard to accept

that it could vibrate simultaneously at all those frequencies.

This was easier for a younger mind such as that

of Sauveur, who in 1701 coined the terms “fundamental”

and “harmonic” [15]. The physics of string vibration

were worked out in the 18th century by a succession of

physicists: Taylor, Daniel Bernoulli, Lagrange, dAlembert,

and Euler [4]. Euler in particular, by introducing

the concept of linear superposition, made it easy to understand

the multiple vibrations of a string that had so

troubled Mersenne.

Mersenne and Galileo usually conceived of vibrations

as merely being periodic, without regard to their shape,

but 18th century physicists found that solutions were often

easy to derive if they assumed “pendular” (sinusoidal)

vibrations. For linear systems, they could then extend the

solutions to any sum of sinusoids thanks to Euler’s principle.

A wide variety of shapes can be obtained in this

way, meaning that the method was quite general. That

any shape can be obtained in this way was proved in

1820 by Fourier [16]. In particular, any periodicwave can

be expressed as the superposition of sinusoids with periods

that are integer fractions of the fundamental period.

Fourier’s theoremhad a tremendous impact onmathematics

and physics.

Up to that point, pitch had been closely associated

with progress in the physics of periodic vibration, and

it seemed obvious that this new tool must somehow be

relevant to pitch. In 1843 Ohm formulated a law, later

rephrased and clarified by Helmholtz, according to which

every pitch corresponds to a sinusoidal partial within the

stimulus waveform. For Ohm, the presence of a partial

was ascertained by applying Fourier’s theorem, and

Helmholtz proposed that the same operation is approximated

by the cochlea[17, 7].

Ohm’s law extended the principle of linear superposition

to the sensory domain. Just as a complex waveform

is the sum of sinusoids, so for Helmholtz the sensation

produced by a complex sound such as a musical note was

“composed” of simple sensations, each evoked by a partial.

In particular, he associated the main pitch of a musical

tone to its fundamental partial.

2.4. The missing fundamental

Ohm’s law is the result of a choice. Mersenne had given

little attention to the shape of periodic vibrations which

he had no means to observe. His law relating frequency

to pitch did not mention shape. However, Fourier’s theorem

now implied that, depending on its shape, a vibration

might contain several sinusoidal partials, each with a different

frequency. This raised an obvious question: does

pitch relate (a) to the period of the vibration as a whole,

or (b) to the period of one of the partials? If (b) is true,

then Fourier analysis is required to determine pitch, if (a)

it is unnecessary. Ohm chose (b).

Seebeck had already addressed the question experimentally,

using a siren to produce periodic stimuli with

several pulses irregularly spaced within a period[1]. Regardless

of the number of pulses, pitch followed the fundamental

period, consistent with (a). Furthermore, by

applying Fourier’s theorem to the waveform, Seebeck

showed that pitch salience did not depend on the relative

amplitude of the fundamental partial, which for some

pulse configurationswas very small. Since the same pitch

was also heard when the stimulus contained only that partial,

he could conclude that pitch does not depend on a

particular partial. This contradicted (b). Low pitch in

the absence of a fundamental partial was already known

from earlier work on beats [18].

Nevertheless, Ohm chose (b) and Helmholtz endorsed

this choice. Many authors have puzzled over

the Seebeck-Ohm-Helmholtz controversy and the reasons

why Helmholtz did not take seriously Seebeck’s

arguments[1, 19, 20, 21]. One reason was no doubt that,

by extending Ohm’s law to upper harmonics, Helmholtz

could explain the higher pitches that some people (among

which Mersenne and himself) occasionally heared. One

can speculate that additional reasons were the conviction

that a theorem as powerful as Fourier’s must be relevant,

and the desire to ensure that the parts of his monumental

theory would fit together.

Helmholtz had three options to address the missing

fundamental problem without renouncing his theory, two

of which he used. The first was to invoke nonlinear distortion

in sound-producing apparatus or in the ear. As an

explanation of periodicity pitch, that hypothesiswas quite

weak already at the time, as argued by Helmholtz’s translator,

Ellis [7]. However it took over sixty years before

Schouten and Licklider laid the explanation to rest. With

an optical siren, Schouten produced a complex tone that

lacked a fundamental. He managed, not only to prove

that the distortion product at the fundamental had a very

low amplitude, but also to cancel it. The absence of a fundamental

component was verified by adding a sinusoidal

tone with a nearby frequency and checking for absence of

a beat. The low pitch was unaffected by removeal of the

fundamental partial, as it was unaffected when Licklider

masked it with noise [22, 23]. This rules out the distortion

product explanation of lowpitch. However distortion

products do exist, and they sometimes do affect pitch, so

that explanation tends to resurface from time to time.

A second optionwas Helmholtz’s concept of “unconscious

inference” that prefigured pattern matching (next

section)[24]. A third option, that Helmholtz apparently

did not use, was to treat cochlear resonators as strings.

As Mersenne and others had noticed, a string vibrates

sympathetically with sounds tuned to its fundamental

mode and with their harmonics. Thus it responds

to a periodic sound regardless of whether or not it contains

a fundamental partial. It is, in essence, a filter tuned

to periodicity. Helmholtz had used the bank-of-strings

metaphor to describe the cochlea. Nevertheless, he chose

to characterize each filter as if it were a Helmholtz resonator

tuned to a single sinusoidal partial. Had he chosen

to treat them as a strings, the missing fundamental

problem would have not existed. Of course, a bank of

strings does not fit Fourier’s theorem, and this is perhaps

why he did not choose this option. If he had chosen it,

the model would have eventually been proven wrong as

cochlear filters are not tuned to periodicity.

3. Pattern matching

We are confronted with incomplete patterns everyday,

and our brain is good at “reconstructing” perceptually the

parts that are missing. Pattern matching models assume

that this is how pitch is perceived when the fundamental

partial is missing. The idea is thus that the fundamental

partial is the necessary correlate of pitch, as Ohm

claimed, but that it may nevertheless be absent if other

parts of the pattern (harmonics often associated with it)

are present. This idea was prefigured byHelmholtz’s “unconscious

inference” and John Stuart Mill’s concept of

“possibilities” [24, 1]. As a possible mechanism, Thurlow

suggested that listeners use their own voice as a

“template” to match with incoming patterns of harmonics


In 1956, de Boer described the concept of pattern

matching in his thesis [26], but the best-known models

are those of Goldstein [27], Wightman [28] and Terhardt

[29]. These models are closely related, but each has its

characteristic flavor. Goldstein’s is probabilistic and performs

optimum processing of a set of estimates of partial

frequencies (obtained by a process that is not defined, but

that could be Helmholtz’s cochlear analysis). Wightman

takes the limited-resolution profile of activity across the

cochlea, and feeds it to a hypothetical internal “Fourier

transformer” to obtain a pattern akin to the autocorrelation

function. Terhardt follows Ohm in positing for each

partial its own sensation of spectral pitch, from which an

internal template derives a virtual pitch that matches that

of the (possibly missing) fundamental. That template is


Pattern-matching models are well known and will not

be described in greater detail here. There is a close relationship

between pattern-matching models and spectrumbased

signal-processing methods for fundamental frequency

estimation, such as subharmonic summation, harmonic

sieve, autocorrelation or cepstrum [30, 8]. For the

last two, this reflects the fact that the Fourier transform,

applied to a spectrum (power spectrum for autocorrelation,

log spectrum for cepstrum) is sensitive to the regular

pattern of harmonics.

Terhardt’smodel is distinct in that it requires that templates

be learned by exposure to harmonically rich stimuli,

an idea that is attractive but constraining. It can be

argued that learning could just as well occur from exposure

to patterns of subharmonics (superperiods) of periodic

sounds, and that harmonically rich stimuli are thus

unnecessary [8]. Shamma and Klein went further and

showed that templates may be learned by exposure to

noise [31]. What this suggests is that the harmonic relations

within the template are a mathematical property

that needs merely to be discovered, not learned. Indeed,

other devices embody the pattern-matching properties of

a harmonic template without having “learned” them. Examples

are the autocorrelation function and the string.

4. Temporal models

Democritus (5th century BC) and Epicurus (4th century

BC) are credited with the idea that a sound-producing

body emits atoms that propagate to the listener’s ear, an

idea later adopted by Beeckman and Gassendi [2]. Related

is the idea that a string “hits” the air repeatedly, and

that pitch reflects the rate at which sound pulses hit the ear

[32, 2]. If so, it should be a simple matter to measure the

interval between two consecutive atoms or pulses, rather

than wait for a series of pulses to build up sympathetic

vibration in a resonator.

The influence of this temporal view of pitch can be

observed indirectly in the “coincidence” theories of consonance

that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Two notes were judged consonant if their vibrations coincided

often [2].

Early temporal models assumed that patterns of

pulses are handled by the “brain”, and thus they tend to

be less elaborate than resonance models. Compare for

example Anaxagoras (5th century BC) for whom hearing

involved penetration of sound to the brain, and Alcmaeon

of Crotona (5th century BC) for whom hearing

is by means of the ears, because within them is an empty

space, and this empty space resounds [6]. The latter obviously

“explains” more. A similar contrast is seen between

the monumental resonance theory of Helmholtz [7], and

the two-page “telephone theory” that Rutherford opposed

to it, according to which the ear is merely a telephone receiver

that transmits pulses to the brain [33].

Rutherford is one of several thinkers that opposed the

Helmholtz theory [34]. One can speculate that they disapproved

of Ohm’s choice (Sect. 2.3), objected to the

obligatory Fourier analysis, and in general resented the

weight of Helmholtz’s authority. Some of these theories

qualify as “temporal” (e.g. those of Hurst or Bonnier [8]),

others were essentially variations on the theme of a resonant


Rutherford was aware that the maximum rates he observed

in frog or rabbit nerves (352 per second) were insufficient

to carry pitch over its full range (up to 4-5 kHz

for musical pitch). The need for high firing rates was relaxed

in 1930 by Wever and Bray’s “volley theory” [35].

Subsequent measurements from the auditory nerve con-

firmed that the volley principle is essentially valid (in a

stochastic form), in that synchrony to temporal features

is measurable up to about 4-5 kHz in the auditory nerve

[36]. Synchrony is also observed at more central neural

relays, but the upper frequency limit decreases as one


Temporal and resonance models differ essentially in

the time required to make a frequency measurement.

Resonance involves the build-up of energy by accumulation

of successive waves, and this requires time that

varies inversely with frequency resolution. The relation

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ that constrains temporal and spectral resolution

was formalized by G´abor [37], but it was known already

to Helmholtz. Helmholtz reasoned that notes occur

at a rate of up to 8 per second in music, and from this he

calculated the narrowest possible bandwidth for cochlear

filters. Frequency resolution was thus dictated by necessary

temporal resolution, rather than by constraints related

to the implementation of cochlear filters.

In contrast, a time-domain mechanism needs just

enough time to measure the interval between two events

(plus time to make sure that each event is an event, plus

time to make sure that they are not both part of a larger

pattern). The time required is on the order of two periods

of the lowest expected frequency; accuracy is limited

only by noise or imperfection of the implementation [8].

An explanation of the puzzling fact that a time-domain

mechanism can escape G´abor’s relation was given by

Nordmark [38].

A weakness of temporal models, as described so far,

is their reliance on events. Events need of course to be

extracted from the waveform (or from the neural pattern

that it evokes). For simple waveforms this is trivial: one

may use peaks or zero-crossings. For complex waveforms

the problem is more delicate, as evident from the

difficulties encountered by time-domain methods of fundamental

frequency estimation [30]. It is hard (perhaps

impossible) to find a definition of “event” that allows stable

period measurement in every case.

This weakness is evident in the phase sensitivity of

early temporal models [28]. For example, a mechanism

that measures intervals between peaks is confused by

waveforms that have several peaks per period. A mechanism

that measures intervals between envelope peaks is

confused by phase manipulations that produce two envelope

peaks per period, etc. As pitch is often invariant for

such phase manipulations, such phase-sensitive mechanisms

cannot hold. The autocorrelation model provided

a solution to this problem.

5. Autocorrelation

In the autocorrelation (AC) model, each sample of the

waveform is used, as it were, as an “event”. Each is compared

to every other sample, and the inter-event interval

that gives the best match (on average) indicates the period.

Concretely, comparison is performed by multiplying

samples and summing the products over a time window.

If samples are equal their products tend to be large, and

so the autocorrelation function (ACF) has a peak at the

period (and its multiples). The peak is the cue to pitch. A

slightly more straightforward idea is to subtract samples

and sum the squared differences, as proposed in the cancellation

model of [39]. The cue to pitch is then a dip in

the difference function. Cancellation and AC models are

formally equivalent [39].

The original formulation of the AC model is due to

Licklider [40], although an interesting precursor was proposed

by Hurst in 1895 according to which a pulse travels

up the basilar membrane, is reflected at the apex, travels

down, and meets the next pulse at a position that indicates

the period [41]. In Licklider’s model, the ACF was

calculated within the auditory nervous system, for each

channel of the auditory filter bank. The model was reformulated

and implemented computationally by Meddis

and Hewitt [42], and confronted to autocorrelation statistics

of actual nerve recordings by Cariani and Delgutte

[43]. A similar model based on first order interspike interval

statistics was proposed by Moore [44]. Cancellation

was cited earlier. Another variant is the strobed temporal

integration model of Patterson and colleagues, in

which patterns are cross-correlated with a strobe function

consisting of one pulse per period [45]. Yost proposed a

simpler predictive model based on waveform autocorrelation

[46]. One may cite also a number of “autocorrelation”

models in which the ACF was produced by an internal

“Fourier transformer” operating on a spectral profile

coming from the cochlea [28].

An important theorem, the Wiener-Khintchine theorem,

say that ACF and power spectrum are Fourier transforms

one of the other. In this sense the AC model can be

seen as an incarnation of the two steps of spectral analysis

and pattern matching. This implies a relation between

these rival approaches, as stressed early on by de Boer

[26]. They differ of course in how they might be implemented

in the auditory nervous system, in properties such

as frequency versus temporal resolution (Sect. 4), and in

the way they can be extended to handle mixtures of tones

[47, 8].

It is interesting to compare autocorrelation to the

string which we encountered several times in this review.

Implementation of autocorrelation requires a delay, associated

with a multiplier (e.g. a coincidence-detector neuron).

Delayed patterns are multipliedwith undelayed patterns.

The string too consists of a delay that, as it were,

feeds upon itself. Delayed patterns are added to undelayed

patterns, and their sum delayed again. This shows

a basic similarity between string and AC. It also shows

their difference. In the AC model a pattern is delayed at

most once. In the string it is delayed many times, and

these multiple delays are necessary for the build-up of

resonance that allows the string to be selective.

6. Discussion

Autocorrelation and pattern matching are the two major

options for explaining pitch today. Pitch is evoked mainly

by stimuli that are periodic, and its value depends on their

period. The two approaches can be seen as two different

ways of extracting the period fromthe stimulus. Autocorrelation

does so directly, and pattern-matching indirectly

via a first stage of Fourier transformation. The choice between

them corresponds to that made by Ohm, a century

and a half ago (Sect. 2.3).

Cochlear frequency resolution, as Helmholtz pointed

out, must be limited. Filters are of roughly constant

“Q”, and thus have difficulty resolving upper harmonics,

closely spaced on a logarithmic scale. Pattern-matching

depends on frequency resolution, and cannot work for

stimuli that contain only partials that are unresolved. Indeed,

such stimuli tend to have a weak pitch, and this can

be interpreted in favor of pattern-matching [8]. On the

other hand, the pitch does exist and thus needs explaining,

which pattern matching cannot do. This argues in

favor of the AC model. The AC model could, in principle,

cover both resolved and unresolved stimuli, but the

marked behavioral differences between them suggest that

there might instead be two mechanisms [48, 49, 50, 51].

The superior performance in pitch tasks for conditions

in which partials are resolved is strongly suggestive of a

pattern-matching mechanism, that breaks down for unresolved

conditions. It might nevertheless be due to other

factors that co vary with “resolution” [8]. The issue of resolved

vs. unresolved is currently a central issue in pitch


Pattern matching and AC models both have many

variants. At times discussions may tend to focus on

relatively minor differences between rival formulations

(e.g. between Terhardt’s vs. Goldstein’s formulation

of pattern-matching, or between first-order and all-order

spike statistics for the AC model). The historical approach

is useful to widen the perspective, to emphasize

the similarities between variants, and possibly even to

suggest new, perhaps radically different, directions in

which to seek explanations of pitch and hearing.

This author is mainly interested (Licklider would

have said “ego-involved” [52]) in a particular variant of

the AC model, cancellation. The reason is that it brings

together mechanisms of pitch and of sound segregation

that may be of use in particular to explain perception of

multiple pitch [53, 47]. An algorithm based on cancellation

has recently proved to be effective for fundamen-

tal frequency estimation [54]. The concept of cancellation

fits well with the ideas on redundancy and neural

metabolism reduction of Barlow [55].

Interest in pitch is fueled by interest in music, a very

old activity. Ideas for this review were searched for in

sources as ancient and diverse as possible. There are

big gaps. Many important sources are known only indirectly

from citations of later authors, suggesting that

much material of interest has been lost. Indeed, there

is evidence that some of the knowledge that developed

over the last 25 centuries was known long before that, in

Sumer, Egypt, China, and possibly even South America.

Sources consulted were exclusively in English or French.

Those written in Latin, German or other languages were

inaccessible for lack of linguistic competence. A more

complete review is due to appear shortly [8].

7. Conclusions

The history of models of pitch perception has been reviewed.

Modern ideas reincarnate older ideas, and their

roots extend as far back as records are available. Models

that are in competition today may have common roots.

The historical approach allows commonalities and differences

to be put in perspective. Hopefully this should help

to defuse sterile controversy that is sometimes harmful to

the progress of ideas [1]. It also may be of use to newcomers

to the field to understand, say, why psychoacousticians

insist on studying musical pitch with unresolved

stimuli (that sound rather unmusical), why they add low

pass noise (which makes tasks even more difficult), etc.

The good reasons for these customs are easier to understand

with a vision of the debates fromwhich present-day

pitch theory evolved.

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